In our month of the woman, we are talking about strong, sometimes unconventional women in the world. Today an American learns about Palestine.
Book: Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland (2011) by Pamela Olson
Palestine. The very name of the country evokes emotions. For many, hearing the names of the countries Palestine OR Israel tends to make them stuff in the ear plugs and pull down the blinders. Maybe if we ignore it the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict, (amazingly the NICEST word that can be applied to the situation) it won’t touch us. After all–they are way over there, and we vaguely know their seemingly intractable history of revenge and bloodshed, are over here.
What gets lost in the emotion of our response? The people. It is easier to dismiss political philosophies–even entire governments–if we can just ignore that there are living, breathing people who are born, fall in love, have families, struggle to get food on the table and a roof over their heads, celebrate life, mourn death. Pamela Olson brings us the whole depressing, messy current political situation of Palestine through her memoir of real people–a few Israelis, many outsiders visiting Palestine for various motivations, and many, many Palestinians.
Even though Olson makes no attempt to hide her love of Palestine and sympathy with the people, she bolsters her emotional stories with towering stacks of facts, meticulously footnoted.
I felt very fortunate to be invited on a Jewish-sponsored tour of Israel in 1990. Some people worried that it wasn’t a safe time to go. When has it ever been safe in that tiny part of the earth? It turned out that 1990 was practically a golden age for travelers, even though it was during the 1st intifada. That was before the proliferation of check points in Palestine, that now can prevent Palestinians from getting to their own fields, or to hospitals for urgently needed care.
It was before the “wall” (Security Fence) and “safe zones” that have cleared agricultural land and thousands of olive trees that supported Palestinian families for generations. Olson points out an Israeli military report that confirms after several years that although the wall was supposed to be built to protect the borders of Israel, in many places, it was instead used to secure land for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, the military determined that it did not deter Hamas suicide bombers from getting into Israel. She describes the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah (the main city of Palestine), Qalandiya.
The mammoth encroaching Wall and its sniper towers dominated the scene. More than six hundred checkpoints and roadblocks, big and small, saturate the West Bank, which has an area only slightly larger than the state of Delaware.
When we visited, we could easily travel to Bethlehem which is now walled off. We walked up to the Dome of the Rock and wandered in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, areas that are now either forbidden or difficult to access.
Olson sets out to show us that Palestinians are people who show fortitude in the face of a life made terribly difficult by the depersonalization of all “Arabs” because of the acts of some. When we visited Israel, we were frequently reminded of rocket attacks into Jewish settlements and the insecurity of people living on borders. But rarely have I read the comparison of Jewish lives lost versus Palestinian lives lost–broken down by military, civilian, adult and children–in the way that Pamela Olson presents it.
Olson presents herself as a very naive American college graduate who knew nothing about the countries of the Middle East when she decided to take time off and travel. Given her intelligent approach to the book, and the fact that she wound up working as the editor of an English language newspaper while she lived in Ramallah, it is a little hard to accept that she is the kind of young traveler who was only interested in partying their way around the world with a total lack of preparation. Nevertheless, presenting herself as a blank slate, allows her to slowly build up the information and make the case for the importance of looking for humane solutions.
As she tries to understand this world, and feels overwhelmed with unexpected kindness, she says to a Palestinian friend, “But it’s hard sometimes, letting go of the stories you think you know.” “It’s true,” he said, “some say the battle with your ego is the toughest jihad.”
Preconceptions turn out to be more dangerous than bombs and bullets. If you are ready to question some of yours, this book is for you. Olson writes with passion, but she constantly questions her own reasoning. As you read, you enter into the dialogue. What makes a suicide bombers do what he does? What does being an Israeli soldier at a check point do to the thinking of a young person? What is the role of the United States government? Why does the United Nations not act on its own findings? Why do the Palestinians allow this violence? Why must killing always result in more killing? Why do the Israelis condone lawless acts in the settlements? Whose land is it, anyway?
Olson quotes a hadith (saying of the Prophet)
…if the day of judgment came and you had a baby palm tree in your hand, even if you saw imminent death approaching, you should still plant it. Every moment is an integral part of the totality of existence, and any act of faith, and kindness is a victory in itself.
In addition to her passion and facts, Olson presents useful information in the form of maps and a glossary of terms. Even if you are just curious about how on earth a thinking person could actually fall in love with such a downtrodden country–such a nest of dangerous fanatics–Fast Times in Palestine belongs in your traveler’s library.
Note: The publisher provided a digital copy of the book for review, but my opinions are my own. Photos are from Flickr. Please click on the picture for more information about the photographer. I have included a link to Amazon for your convenience. Even though it costs you no more, A Traveler’s Library gets a few cents for each sale made through those links, so you will be showing your support for the site.